Chapter 9 Persia, Byzantium and the Rus

Section 1 Sasanid Persia

Around 226 A.D., the Sasanid dynasty replaced the Parthian rulers of Persia. In many ways, the Sasanids, who came from the same part of Persia as Cyrus the Great, revived the traditions of the Achaemenid Empire. They emphasized sacred kingship, centralized the empire, and resisted foreign enemies. Agriculture and commerce flourished, so that their era was probably the most prosperous in the pre-modern history of Mesopotamia and Iran. Their empire was finally destroyed by the Arabs in 651, but their concepts of state religion, kingship, government, and justice profoundly affected the Arabs and through them all of Islamic civilization.

The Rise of the Sasanid Empire

By the beginning of the third century AD, the Arsacid (Parthian) dynasty, which had ruled the Iranian plateau and adjacent territories for over four hundred years, was under great strain. Although the last of its periodic wars with Rome had ended with an advantageous peace treaty in 218, the years of fighting had clearly sapped its strength and depleted its resources. The Sakas and Kushans had eroded its territory in the east. Precious metals for coinage were in short supply, and outbreaks of plague and disease further crippled the state. The Arsacid dynasty itself seems to have been increasingly unpopular, perhaps because of its relative openness to foreign cultural influences as well as its apparent ineffectiveness. All of these difficulties simply brought out into the open its most fundamental weakness: the Parthian Empire was less a true centralized empire than a confederation of powerful noble families and regional rulers held together in a precarious balance by the Arsacid kings whose authority could be challenged the moment they appeared vulnerable.

            Just such a revolt against the last Arsacid king broke out as early as 205 in a southwestern province called Persis, which had been the homeland of the Achaemenid dynasty and gave its name to the Persian Empire. The origins and exact nature of the upheaval there are not clear, but it seems to have been inspired and directed by a commander of one of the local military garrisons named Ardashir who was probably the younger son of Papak, the priest-king of Persis. During the period when the last Parthian kings were distracted by war with the Romans, Ardashir became ruler of Persis and was able to annex several districts on the fringes of the province from their pro-Parthian vassals. It was not long before Ardashir’s tactical successes and increasing popularity enabled him to confront Artabanus V, the Parthian king, directly. The decisive battle was fought around 224 and resulted in the defeat of the Parthians and the death of Artabanus.

            Ardashir moved immediately after his victory over Artabanus to secure the submission or defeat of the other noble families and local rulers and to establish his control over the whole of what had been the Parthian Empire. By 226, he had captured the capital city Ctesiphon in Mesopotamia and was crowned as the new King of Kings (Shahanshah). To emphasize the legitimacy of his right to rule, Ardashir proclaimed his descent from the ancient rulers of Iran through an ancestor named Sasan, whose exact identity is unclear. The dynasty of rulers he founded thus came to be known as the Sasanids and would last until 651. 

The legendary stories that purport to recount the career of Ardashir emphasize that he wished to restore the grandeur of the Persian Empire as it had existed before its destruction by Alexander and the weak and corrupt government of the Parthian “tribal chiefs.” To do so, he would wreak vengeance on Alexander’s heirs, the Romans; restore the former borders of the empire; bring justice and prosperity to his realm; and uphold Magianism, the true religion of Zoroaster. Such accounts no doubt grew out of Sasanid propaganda, and they exaggerate the differences between the Parthians and Sasanids in order to justify Ardashir’s usurpation of power. It is also unlikely that Ardashir and the more than thirty Sasanid kings who succeeded him had any clear historical memory of the Achaemenids, who had originated in the same geographical area and founded the first Persian Empire. Nonetheless, there are indeed many ways in which the Sasanids emulated the policies of their predecessors and could be seen as attempting to revive the ancient Persian Empire. Certainly, the most obvious accomplishment of the early Sasanid rulers, notably Ardashir (226-240), Shapur I (240-271), and Shapur II (309-379), was a vigorous effort to defend and expand the territory under their control.

            In the east, the Oxus and the Indus could be regarded as the natural borders of Iran, and Ardashir is supposed to have advanced to the banks of both rivers. The territories along the Oxus—Khiva, Marv, Balkh—were probably conquered, and the Kushan rulers in Bactria and the Punjab at least forced to recognize some kind of subordinate status to the Sasanids. This effectively restored the boundaries of the Achaemenid Empire in the east. The frontier with India was thereafter generally quiet, but Central Asia required constant attention to prevent incursions by the nomadic tribes beyond the Oxus. There, Shahpur II successfully resisted the attempted invasion of the Chionites and was able to incorporate some of them into his army. His successors faced a more formidable adversary in the Hephthalites, who were a thorn in the side of the Sasanids down to 554 when they were finally subjugated.

            Mesopotamia was the political center, breadbasket, and greatest financial resource of the Sasanids. It was thus essential to guard it against any assault, including one from the sedentary and nomadic Arabs living in the area stretching from Hatra to the littoral of the Persian Gulf. The ability of the Arabs, with or without foreign backing, to threaten the Sasanid heartland had been demonstrated as early as 260-263 when the Odenathus, the king of Palmyra, was able to harass the Persian forces, defeat Shapur I and besiege Ctesiphon. Gulf Arabs also raided Mesopotamia and briefly captured Ctesiphon during the reign of Shapur II. He retaliated with a successful naval expedition against them. To discourage future raids, he had holes bored through the shoulders of the prisoners and tied them together with ropes, thus earning himself the name among Arabs of Dhu’l-Aktaf, “He of the Shoulders.” The general policy of later Sasanid rulers was to prevent destructive incursions by Arab nomads by establishing a buffer state ruled by a friendly and loyal Arab dynasty, the Lakhmids, on this border.

            To the north, Armenia was a prime area of concern for the Sasanids. It was not strictly speaking part of Iran, but the Sasanids could not ignore it for several reasons. For one thing, it was then ruled by members of the Arsacid family who naturally tended to be hostile to the Sasanids. The Sasanids also feared that Armenia would be, as it often had been in the past, a sphere of Roman influence that could be used to put pressure on Mesopotamia. In 252, taking advantage of his successes against the Romans, Shapur I invaded Armenia and installed his own son as its king. The Sasanids retained direct control over Armenia down to about 279 when Roman pressure led to the restoration of an Arsacid monarchy. The Sasanids continued to try to expand their influence over Armenia, if not by direct attack then through methods such as plotting the murder of its ruler or encouraging the conversion of the population to the Zoroastrian religion. The reaction to this Sasanid pressure produced perhaps the most important event in the history of Armenia, its official conversion to Christianity in 301. In 364, Shapur II took advantage of Roman weakness to kill the Armenian king, devastate the countryside, and turn Armenia into a Persian province. The Emperor Theodosius and Shapur III subsequently decided in 387 to partition Armenia into two vassal states under Arsacid kings, one aligned with Rome and the other with Persia. In 428, the Sasanids, at the urging of some of the Armenian nobility, took direct control of the area. Yazdgard II (440-457) tried to impose Zoroastrianism on the population and increased taxes. Dissident noblemen, church leaders, peasants, joining forces with other peoples of the Caucasus, revolted against the Sasanids in 450, but they were crushed at the battle of Avarayr in 451. Another revolt in 481-483 was also suppressed but led to some improvements such as the right of freedom of religion for the Armenians. There was a third partition of Armenia in 591, followed by attempts to deport many of the inhabitants or otherwise depopulate the region. Despite these calamities and the misfortune of being caught on a battlefield between the Romans and Persians, the Armenian people survived with their sense of national identity, social structure, and religion intact.

            As the history of Armenia makes clear, the great foreign adversary of the Sasanid Empire was Rome. The Sasanids thought of themselves not only as the King of Kings of Iran, the territory from Mesopotamia to the Oxus, but also of non-Iran, which could have included the former possessions of the Achaemenid Empire as far as the Aegean sea. In practice, the Sasanids did not attempt to annex those territories but regarded them as fair targets for raids. The Romans, however, certainly feared that the Sasanids intended to recreate the Achaemenid Empire. Any Sasanid movement to the west would thus produce conflict with Rome, as would any Roman attempt to encroach on Armenia or Mesopotamia. This situation led to at least ten major wars and numerous minor skirmishes between the two great empires with neither side ever achieving a decisive victory.

            In the early years of their on-going rivalry with Rome, the Sasanids tended to have the upper hand. Ardashir initiated the struggle by seizing parts of northern Mesopotamia and Anatolia. Shapur I launched a major war in 241-244, advancing as far as Antioch in Syria before being driven back to the Euphrates by the Emperor Gordian. In the second phase of the war, 258-260, Shapur again advanced to Antioch and the central part of Anatolia. There, he not only defeated but captured the Emperor Valerian, whose utter humiliation was depicted in a magnificent rock-carving on the cliff at Nakhsh-i Rustam in the heart of the Sasanid homeland. These victories, and the subsequent wars, were an important factor in forcing the Roman rulers to focus more on defending the eastern half of their empire and thus contributed to the formation of the Late Roman, or Byzantine, Empire.

            During the fifth century, the Sasanid struggle with Rome subsided because of severe internal problems that were beginning to affect the empire—religious controversies, the difficulty of controlling Armenia, and above all the appearance of the Hephthalites, warlike pastoral nomads, on the eastern frontier. Bahram Gur (420-440) crossed the Oxus, defeated them, and forced them to agree to a peace treaty. They soon returned, however, defeating Persian armies and sometimes forcing the payment of tribute during the reigns of Yazdgard II (440-457), Peroz (459-483), and Balash (483-485). They even began to play a role in Sasanid politics as they helped put Peroz on the throne and twice assisted Kavad (485-498 and 501-531) in his efforts to become king.

            The reign of Kavad was something of a watershed in Sasanid history, not only because of the Hephthalite problem but even more because of the religious upheaval led by a priest named Mazdak. Mazdak’s teachings are known only through the reports of his enemies and have undoubtedly been distorted in order to present him in the worst possible light. His basic goal seems to have been to improve the conditions of the rural poor and to protect them from oppression and exploitation by the powerful aristocratic families which had amassed huge estates and large harems. He thus taught that God had meant for land, material goods, and women to be distributed equally; evil arose from competition for these resources and their inequitable distribution. It was therefore necessary to correct the balance by taking from the rich and giving to the poor. Exactly how Mazdak proposed to do this is unclear but it most likely involved breaking up estates and distributing land to peasants, giving handouts of food and other goods from the state treasury and temple stores, and liberating women from the harems. Oddly enough, Kavad supported Mazdak in his reforms, perhaps in order to break the power of the aristocratic families and win the support of the peasantry for the monarchy. Naturally, the aristocrats and the orthodox clergy were horrified at the appearance of Mazdakism and resisted it with all their resources. They eventually forced Kavad to turn against Mazdak.

Bio The task of rebuilding the Sasanid empire after the crisis of the fifth and early sixth century fell to Khusrau Anushirvan (531-579), perhaps the greatest and surely the most famous of the Sasanid rulers. Kavad had named Khusrau as his successor but this was contested by other members of the family. To remove any chance of challenges to his authority, Khusrau killed all his brothers and their male children except one who escaped. He then turned with a vengeance on the Mazdakites, executing Mazdak himself and thousands of his followers. While securing his throne, he had agreed to a peace with Rome, but he was concerned about the apparent revival of Roman power under the Emperor Justinian., In 540, he launched a surprise attack and raided as far as Antioch; he even attempted to establish a Persian colony on the Black Sea in order to build up a navy and attack his enemy by sea. The war dragged on until 562 when the two parties concluded another peace on more or less equal terms. Khusrau then turned on the Hephthalites. In alliance with the Turks, whose power had just been established in Central Asia, he crushed the Hephthalites and re-established the Oxus as the border of the empire. He was also able to achieve something of a strategic success against the Byzantines by defeating the Khazars north of the Caucasus and by expelling the Ethiopians from Yemen, transforming southern Arabia into a Persian protectorate. This would have prevented the Byzantines from establishing their own trade links with East Asia either overland to the north or by sea to the south. Fear of being enveloped in this way was probably the reason the Byzantines broke the peace treaty and engaged in a new and inconclusive war against Khusrau during the last years of his reign.

            Although Khusrau’s military exploits and foreign policy were impressive, his fame really rested on his handling of internal affairs. The chaos of the Mazdakite period was resolved by undertaking a complete land survey and census. The collection of taxes was reformed and regularized. Instead of paying with part of the crop, peasants paid a fixed rate in cash after the harvest. Common people, but not the privileged classes, also paid a poll tax. With the new, predictable revenues, Khusrau could finance beneficial public works, especially irrigation projects to open up more land for cultivation. He thoroughly reformed the administrative structure of the empire, dividing it into four large provinces each under the control of a governor responsible to him. The military was also changed in ways which undercut the power and private armies of the great families. Some soldiers were paid a salary, but Khusrau especially encouraged the use of dihqans, soldier-peasants in charge of a village, as the backbone of the army and the main line of defense in frontier areas. Khusrau also took measures to promote learning, establish justice, and protect religious minorities.

            In later tradition, Anushirvan and his prime minister Vuzurgmihr came to represent the epitome of ideal rulers and wise government. Many maxims and sage proverbs about government and administration were attributed to them. They are perhaps best summarized in the twelve rules of conduct Vuzurgmihr gave Anushirvan and which he is supposed to have inscribed in golden letters: Fear God; be trustworthy and loyal; seek the advise of wise men; honor scholars, the nobles, and the officials; supervise judges and tax collectors strictly; check on the condition of prisoners; assure the safety of roads and markets; punish the guilty according to their crime; provision the army; respect the family; defend the borders; and watch government officials closely to remove the disloyal and incompetent.[1]

Religion, State, and Society in Sasanid Persia

Sacred Kingship in Sasanid Persia: To the Sasanids, the ideal society was one which could maintain stability and order, and the necessary instrument for this was a strong monarchy. Perhaps the most striking difference between the Parthian and Sasanid periods is this emphasis on kingship and centralized government. According to the “Letter of Tansar,” supposedly written by the chief Zoroastrian priest under Ardashir, people were theoretically divided into four classes—the priests, the soldiers, the scholars and the artisans. Membership in a class was generally determined by birth although it was possible for an exceptional individual to move to another class on the basis of merit. The ideal was for all people to remain within their class and engage only in the activities appropriate to it. The function of the king was to be above all the classes and insure that each class remained within its proper boundaries, so that the strong did not oppress the weak nor the weak the strong. To maintain this social equilibrium was the essence of royal justice, and its effective functioning depended on the glorification of the monarchy above all other classes. Thus kingship was regarded as sacred; the king was chosen by God who conferred on him the visible aura of royal authority and glory (called farr). Kingly glory was further communicated to the subjects by emphasizing the illustrious ancestry of the rulers from ancient kings and divinities, the use of magnificent crowns and palaces and court ceremonies, erecting monumental carvings and inscriptions, and employing grandiose titles. Shapur I called himself “I, the Mazda worshipper, the god Shapur, King of Kings of Iranians and Non-Iranians, of the race of gods, son of the Mazda worshipper, of the god Ardashir, King of Kings of the Iranians, of the race of gods, grandson of Papak, king; of the Empire of Iran, I am the sovereign.”[2] In a famous letter to the Roman emperor, Shapur II styled himself “king of kings, partner of the stars, brother of the sun and moon.”[3] The same sentiments were proclaimed in the rock carvings which depicted Sasanid kings in the presence of their divine ancestors and receiving the emblem of royalty from Ohrmazd (Ahura Mazda) himself and on the imperial crowns which bore symbols of the sun and moon. Royal authority was also buttressed by linking it to both religious and national sentiments. Special fire temples in honor of the Sasanid house were established, and kings were venerated as deities after their death. Playing on the coincidence that the word for Aryan, er, also meant humble, Tansar said “we are called ‘the Iranian people,’ and there is no quality or trait of excellence or nobility which we hold dearer than this, that we have ever showed humility and lowliness and humbleness in the service of kings, and have chosen obedience and loyalty, devotion and fidelity.”[4]

The Sasanid Aristocracy: Despite the emphasis on monarchy, the Sasanid Empire remained a very aristocratic state, and in practice its real division was not into four classes but into a privileged class of the seven great noble families and the masses of ordinary people. As Tansar said, the king “has established a visible and general distinction between men of noble birth and common people with regard to horses and clothes, houses and gardens, women and servants. Furthermore he has set differences among the nobles themselves...according to the dignity of each man’s rank; that they may look after their own households and know the privileges and places appropriate to themselves. So no commoner may share sources of enjoyment of life with the nobles, and alliance and marriage between the two groups is forbidden.”[5] The separation of the nobility from commoners, and the desire to keep wealth concentrated in the tight-knit great families, even received a religious sanction through the Zoroastrian practice of encouraging next-of-kin marriages (father-daughter, brother-sister) which most societies would regard as incestuous. Since the nobility and the aristocratic ideal were so entrenched, the rulers sought to co-opt, not destroy, the noble families and local rulers through the granting of titles and privileges which would attach them to the court and make them dependent on the King of Kings. This led to the establishment of a complex, highly structured system of administration for the clergy, military, and bureaucracy headed respectively by a chief priest, commander-in-chief (later four spahbads or generals), and prime minister. Many subordinate ranks in each division extended down to the district level. Particularly important governorships were often held by members of the royal family itself.

The Sasanid State Religion. Religion clearly constituted one of the main foundations of the new royal authority in the Sasanid empire. The Parthian rulers had also been Zoroastrian in religion, but they tended to follow very tolerant religious policies and to allow numerous regional cults and shrines to be maintained by their vassals. This approach was not at all compatible with the kind of centralized, monarchical state that the Sasanids wished to build. They wished rather to create a single, unified Zoroastrian state church under their own control. Ardashir himself is supposed to have begun the process of destroying the regional religious cults and temples that had appeared under the Parthians and suppressing, by force if necessary, unauthorized religious activity such as the worship of images of deities. He was particularly concerned to prevent the maintenance of the sacred fires established by local authorities in Parthian times and allow only the regnal fires associated with his dynasty. In addition, the orthodox Magian priesthood was restored and reorganized in a hierarchical system headed by a chief priest appointed by the king. Tansar and Kartir were the first two of these chief priests, and both authored writings that reflect clearly the thrust of Sasanid religious policy. Tansar defended Ardashir’s actions on the grounds that he was restoring the true religion and emphasized the harmony of interests between the monarchy and the established church: “Church and State were born of the one womb, joined together and never to be sundered.”[6] Kartir recorded how he was made “absolute in authority over the order of priests at court and in every province and place throughout the empire” and boasted that “religious activities were increased, many Vahram fires were founded, and many priests became happy and prosperous.” In his words, he had “made the Mazda-worshipping religion and the good priests exalted and honored in the land.”[7]

            One of the most important consequences of the Sasanid religious policy was that the hymns and teachings of Zoroastrianism, which previously existed in oral form, were collected together in official written versions. The most important of these texts was the Avesta, containing the oldest and basic scriptures of Zoroastrianism such as the Gathas (hymns of Zoroaster), the Yasna (various prayers and the Zoroastrian articles of faith), and the Yasht (hymns in honor of various deities.) At least three editions of the Avesta were prepared under the auspices of the Sasanid rulers, the last and most authoritative being completed during the reign of Khusrau Anushirvan. The texts of the Avesta were recorded in a special script which preserved the sounds of the ancient Iranian dialect in which they had been composed. Other religious writings, such as the commentary on the Avesta known as the Zand, were set down in the Sasanid vernacular language known as Middle Persian or Pahlavi. This can be seen as a deliberate policy formulated by the Sasanid rulers to insured that their tongue would be the language of the whole empire, and that they, rather than previous rulers such as the Parthians, would receive full credit for fostering religious knowledge. The Sasanid encouragement of literary scholarship also extended to non-religious learning. Other writings prepared under court and priestly supervision included works on history, notably the Book of Kings.

Sasanid Economic and Legal Policies. The Sasanid monarchs employed many other methods besides royal propaganda and the establishment of a state church to strengthen their hold on the empire. They also took concrete steps to win the loyalty and obedience of their subjects by attending to their material and social needs. They were very active in undertaking new irrigation works that would make more land available for agricultural production. They also sought to expand the urban life of the empire through the foundation of new cities. Ardashir alone is supposed to have founded eight cities, and both Shapur I and Khusrau Anushirvan established cities which they populated with prisoners taken during their wars. These projects not only had the effect of stimulating agricultural production, promoting trade and commerce, and increasing government revenues, they also expanded the numbers of people and the amount of land under the direct control of the monarchy rather than the noble families.

Sassanid overseas trade routes, from

            Perhaps the most effective rationale for the Sasanid concept of monarchy was the function of the king as the guarantor of law and justice in society. The Sasanids established courts throughout their empire, from the largest cities to the smallest rural districts. They also maintained that, at least in theory, even the humblest subject could appeal directly to the monarch to right a wrong. In practice, the administration of the law was largely in the hands of the Zoroastrian clergy. The law itself was based heavily on the religious principles of Zoroastrianism, royal decrees, and precedents set in earlier cases. A fairly comprehensive manual of the law, known as the “Book of a Thousand Legal Decisions,” was compiled during the reign of Khusrau Parviz. The concern of the Sasanid rulers for their duty of insuring justice is reflected in many of the legendary stories told about them in later Iranian and Islamic tradition. As Khusrau Anushirvan is supposed to have said, “The throne depends on the army, the army on revenue, revenue on agriculture, and agriculture on justice” and “The prosperity of the people is more important than a large army, and royal justice is more beneficial than times of abundance.”[8]

Decline and Fall of Sasanid Persia

Despite Khusrau Anushirvan’s accomplishments, the Sasanid empire went into rapid decline after his death. One factor was widespread discontent among the military nobility, especially in northeastern Iran. This manifested itself in the revolt of Bahram Chubin, a general descended from an old Parthian family, who came very close to overthrowing the Sasanid dynasty. Khusrau Parviz (591-628) defeated Bahram and retained his throne largely because of assistance from the Byzantine emperor Maurice. When his benefactor Maurice was himself overthrown in a similar revolt by disgruntled elements of his army in 602, Khusrau launched another war against the Byzantines. The Persian forces were actually able to take Jerusalem in 614 and Alexandria in 619, and these initial successes apparently caused Khusrau Parviz to nourish the illusion that he was destined to rule the world from the Mediterranean to China. In actuality, the wars and the extravagant luxury of his court severely overextended his resources. He also made a serious mistake when he deposed, largely because of a personal grudge, Nu’man, the king of the Lakhmid Arab buffer state, in 602. This ultimately produced an Arab revolt and the defeat of a Sasanid army at Dhu Qar in 611. By 627, the Persians were being badly beaten by the Byzantines. A new revolt, in which some of Khusrau’s own sons were involved, then broke out; Khusrau was deposed and murdered. The remaining years of the dynasty were marked by internal strife, frequent change of rulers; neglect and disruption of the crucial irrigation systems in Mesopotamia; and serious outbreaks of. disease and famine. Weakened and bitterly divided, the empire was unable to resist the attacks of the Arabs, who seized the capital in 637 and defeated the imperial army in its last stand at Nihavand in 642. The last Sasanid king, Yazdgard III, fled to eastern Iran and tried in vain to rally resistance to the Arabs. He was killed by one of his own subjects in 651.

            With the flight and murder of Yazdgard III, the Sasanid Empire came to a pathetic end, but it left behind a brilliant cultural legacy. Its conception of monarchy and court life, its institutions of government and administration, its integration of state and religion, its social structure and laws, and its arts and architecture would all profoundly affect the Arab and Islamic civilization which arose out of its ruins.